In the first days of June 1944, the artist Minnie Evans (1892–1987) sat down with a faith healer named Madame Tula. Evans handed her two drawings, My Very First and My Second, and the mysterious prophet told her that they foretold the current global conflict, World War II. Madame Tula then instructed Evans to make a new painting to bring about the war’s conclusion. Days later, Evans painted Invasion Picture.
When asked about this seminal painting, Minnie Evans described an image of total destruction, pointing out “bombs” and the figure of Fu Manchu, further adding, “I never worked like I worked on that picture.” Invasion Picture was indeed a decisive, artistic moment brought about by complex personal, religious and collective experiences. Far from being an “innocent” as others have labelled her, the artist was quite aware of the sociopolitical context of her home town of Wilmington, North Carolina, during World War II. She asserted that the war affected a real turning point in her career, after which she expanded her artistic production. This 1944 painting signalled a new process by which Evans reoriented her experiences into artworks that each functioned as faith-based responses to a rapidly modernising world.
A native of the Wilmington area, Minnie Evans married into the community of a large local estate – Airlie Gardens – owned by Pembroke Jones in 1908. She lived in a tenant house at nearby MacCumber Station, along with most of the other employees of Airlie. Two focal points of the MacCumber community were its two evangelical churches: St Matthew’s African Methodist Episcopal and Pilgrim’s Rest Baptist. Evans was an active participant in both congregations, often leading prayers. She also represented her church community at conventions.
These congregations had links to the larger evangelical, African American church community in Wilmington. Church communities like Evans’ were an outlet for education and social advocacy after the Reconstruction era, and their role grew in importance through key moments in Wilmington’s history. After the city’s race riot of 1898, for example, ministers negotiated a delicate peace, asking for calm and persuading congregants to consider notions of divine redemption. In the early decades of the twentieth century, church leaders also spoke out against opression by Jim Crow laws and the Ku Klux Klan, and pervasive fears of racial violence – opression and fear that extended to life at Airlie Gardens.
In 1918, Minnie Evans joined her husband as an employee of Airlie. Eventually their three sons would join the staff there as well. Describing early twentieth-century life at Airlie, a friend of the Evans family stated it was run in a “regal manner”, modelled on old-fashioned traditions. This manner could be inhumane, subjecting African American employees to humiliating scenes. In one instance, young African American children, like Evans’ own, were ordered to “[climb] a greased pole with some money at the top … [while] white guests watched.” These and other oppressive aspects of Evans’ daily life reified the need for a liberating and redeeming force that could help respond to such trying experiences.
Image caption: My Beautiful Face #1, 1962, graphite, ink, colored crayon, watercolor on paper